Images and Words :
Cynthia von Buhler: Life. Death. Repeat.
July 19, 2011 , 10:24 pm | By Bryan Reesman
Some artists are difficult to pigeonhole, and that’s a great thing.
I have known Cynthia von Buhler for fifteen years, from her earlier performance art days with the female dominant, fetish-oriented group Women Of Sodom and her beguiling, edgy and romantically inspired painting to her expanding career path as both a graphic novel artist and children’s book author and illustrator. While she certainly possesses a very distinct style, Cynthia is not that easy to categorize. She has worked in the visual arts and music. That diversity also extends into her life — she occasionally hosts really fun parties populated by a wide variety of equally eclectic people. Her recent summer bash at her woodland compound in Connecticut featured a live play that was an improvised mash-up of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang performed outdoors near midnight. She played Snow White. No matter what she works on, Cynthia brings her own unique perspective into the project, and she likes to challenge people’s perceptions and expectations.Cynthia’s work has run the gamut of extremes, from two feline-friendly children’s books (The Cat Who Wouldn’t Come Inside and But Who Will Bell The Cats?) to colorful, striking paintings with unusual mixed media elements (such as fruit, a half-melted candle, even a syringe) to a vending machine display called Cynth-O-Matic, which dispensed packaged samples of her body hair and various fluids. (Seriously.) Some of Cynthia’s recent and upcoming projects include illustrating the Evelyn Evelyn graphic novel A Tragic Tale In Two Tomes, a children’s chapter book and a graphic novel about her grandparents.
Cynthia’s diverse body of work speaks for itself. And with this interview I hope to shine a light onto her life and creative process.
What has been it like transforming yourself from a fetish-oriented performance artist into the author of children’s books? What inspired this latter phase?
Even when I was performing, my visual art was my primary interest. I studied children’s book illustration and fine art in college, so I was working on children’s books all along, and the music and performance were really side projects. As for the evolution of my art, it has become more 3-D over the years. It’s almost as if my fine art and my performance have merged. The animals and dolls I use in my art are performance artists themselves. That feels authentic to the performer in me.
I have always been an artist. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing, building, or painting. I was always creating something. In fact, my whole family was always working on an art project of some kind. Both of my parents are creative artists themselves, although my mother was a housewife and my father a design engineer.
When I was a child, I came up with my own puppet shows, games, and skits – my imagination was constantly moving. I never lacked for friends because I was a very entertaining child. I was also a voracious reader. I belonged to an adult book club, and my mother let me buy any books I wanted. I always chose the X-rated books. I remember reading Last Tango in Paris as an eight year old. I didn’t fully understand what I was reading, but I was fascinated by it.
This far into your career, how does it feel to know that people like Jann Wenner own your paintings?
I’m happy that people enjoy my art and want it in their collections, but I don’t think about that too much. When my works go out into the world I stop thinking about them. I’m usually thinking about the art that is in my future, not in my past.
“When I’m on deadline for a book or project, I continue working until I am done, even if that means I’m still working when the sun comes up.”
It has been said that great artists do not come up alone; they form or are a part of a community of like-minded souls. Over the years you have always held parties at whichever residence you had and have always allowed artists of different backgrounds to interface there. Have you been conscious of this throughout your life?
I feel as if I did come up alone as an artist. I’m alone when I work all day, and I’ve never had an art mentor. My art and writing have been informed by the art I have seen and books I have read. My heroes are long dead – Renaissance painters and British novelists. I have also been influenced by some of the obscure foreign films and musicals from my childhood. A few of my artist friends have probably influenced my work a bit, but I think that we get most of our influence from the deep, dark places hidden in our brains.
But while that is all very solitary, I do love to bring people together once in a while in a very big way. I enjoy throwing bizarre and entertaining parties. At my Freaks party I was a mermaid. I greeted my guests from a bathtub filled with water. We had a merry-go-round on the loft roof, cotton candy vendors, stilt walkers, contortionists, fire eaters and so much more!
Could you tell us about the graphic novel you’re working on with Amanda Palmer?
I’m working on it with Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley. Don’t forget Jason! And Neil Gaiman wrote the afterword — there are probably as many words in the afterword as the whole book itself. I laid it out in a picture book format. I see it as an adult picture book. I love the story they wrote. It’s beyond Dickensian! It made me decide to stop eating chicken and become a real vegetarian. It has been a complete joy working with Amanda and Jason. I love the sadness and dark sense of humor in the story.
What’s the basic gist of the Evelyn Evelyn story?
It’s about these conjoined twins and these terrible things that keep happening to them. The title is A Tragic Tale In Two Tomes because it is going to be a hardcover two-book set. I’m not doing it in a typical comic book format. I’m doing it in a picture book format. It’s one image per page with some breakout frames done in a circus-y style. I’ve never done a comic, and I like the idea of a graphic novel because I see it as a picture book for adults with adult subject matter.
Is it coincidental that so many rock musicians are getting into comics?
I think there’s definitely a movement. Bands are having trouble making music selling albums, so they’re looking for other ways to make money, whether it’s from t-shirts, merchandising or books. This is another way to make money. I wanted to get into it because books and comics lead to other things like films. You can take the idea for a film and make it into a comic, and then you have something that your agent can pitch and sell. Most children’s films started as a picture book or a young adult book. Persopolis started as a comic. I loved the book and the film. With musicians, they get an artist to interpret the music. Like our Castle von Buhler Records compilations [Anon, Soon and Nigh], which featured interpretive paintings for each song. It’s a way of taking the songs and making them into pictures.
“I remember reading Last Tango in Paris as an eight year old. I didn’t fully understand what I was reading, but I was fascinated by it.”
What other projects do you have coming up?
I’m working on two big projects: a children’s chapter book and a graphic novel about my grandparents. I can’t talk about the content of the chapter book right now, but the title of the book is The Legend of Forestina.
As for the graphic novel: It is called The Dollhouse Speakeasy. I have a very colorful family history. My grandparents on my mother’s side owned speakeasies and bootlegged liquor during Prohibition. My grandfather was mysteriously murdered in Manhattan in 1935, and I’m trying to find out why. I’m making a Prohibition era dollhouse world and dolls to recreate the murder. I also made a biographical photo comic teaser about the creation of the graphic novel with the photographer Seth Kushner. The photo comic is up on the Act-i-vate site. The graphic novel was inspired by The Nutshell Diaries. It will take some time to complete as the sets and dolls are time-consuming to create. I also need to travel to Italy to do research. I’m going there to collect royal DNA to see if my grandmother was descended from Francesco Sforza, the former Duke of Milan. If so, I’m also related to Princess Diana. Crazy, huh?
I’m also doing a Kickstarter fundraiser for an immersive theater presentation in Oct 17th and 24th in Manhattan. I have been inspired by Punch Drunk’s immersive theater production of Sleep No More in New York City, and I will present an immersive environment where some parts of The Dollhouse Speakeasy will be told by actors. The environment will mirror the dollhouse sets from the graphic novel, including a speakeasy, a hospital room, a street scene and a pre-war apartment.
I’m also working on a series of 2-D oil paintings and 3-D sculptures. I will have a solo exhibit of those pieces when they are completed.
You were very active in the Boston music scene during the latter half of the ’90s. What do you miss about that time? And how has being based in or near New York helped your career to flourish further?
I miss my community of friends in Boston. Many of them still come to my New York parties and events. I do not miss the music industry at all. Bryan, you know why! You got me into that in the first place! For people who want the whole story, they can listen to Shooting Star by my band Countess. Now I go and see my husband perform jazz violin with The Howard Fishman Quartet. I enjoy listening to it, but I do not get involved with the promotion or management. I just enjoy it.
At this point in my career, I feel like I can live anywhere. I make many new friends through Twitter, I found my agent through Linked In and I stay in touch with old friends through Facebook. I like my new community of girl friends in New York City. They are talented, saucy vixens, and we have decadent times together. I always try to include my Boston friends too.
What is a typical day like in the life of Cynthia von Buhler?
When I’m at my country house, I wake up in a pile of animals around 10 AM. I feed the dogs, cats, and doves. I make myself a latte and drink it while the dogs and I go for a walk. I live on a private lake in the woods. I sit on the dock while the dogs do their business and I do mine – emailing or texting agents, collaborators, editors, publishers, art dealers, location owners and location scouts. I only talk on the phone if it is absolutely necessary. When it is warm, I go for a swim or boat ride in the lake, still emailing intermittently. Between 1 and 2 PM I enter my art studio. If you want me to describe what I do in my studio I will need to write a book to describe it, so let’s just say this: I make art in there.
I do not stop or eat anything until dinner at about 8 PM with my husband Russell Farhang. We usually eat out so we can talk and connect after being apart all day. I could talk to him for days on end – he is incredibly interesting and intelligent. When we get home I take a bath. In the bath, I make Twitter posts and check in with the world. My bathtub is surrounded by books, and I do a good deal of research in the tub. After my bath, I write or do research for my writing, art and location business until about 3 AM. When I’m on deadline for a book or project, I continue working until I am done, even if that means I’m still working when the sun comes up. When I get too tired to keep my eyes open, I climb into bed where a pile of animals await me. I despise going to sleep, and I only do so when I’m completely exhausted. Otherwise insomnia strikes and that wastes precious time.
When I’m in New York City, I go off to meetings all day. I schedule them one after another. I’ll meet with business associates, galleries, magazines, musicians, loft/mansion owners and agents. Afterwards I’ll meet burlesque dancers, artists, my sister or my husband for dinner and drinks.
Is there an art form that you would like to tackle that you have yet to? Is there an artist you’d really like to collaborate with?
Stop motion animation. I’m learning it now. I usually end up working with the people I’m destined to work with. How’s that for a cryptic answer?
What do you consider to be the signature elements of a Cynthia von Buhler painting?
Life, death, repeat.